Last week I received a thumb drive in the mail from the estate managers charged with managing my late aunt’s residual affairs. Contained within the drive was a series of unfocused photos depicting the interior and exterior of her Mashpee house. Included were different perspectives for each room as well as the jumble of cellar shelves that still hold dozens of her everyday possessions. Mounted deer heads lay sideways up on a high shelf—doubtlessly placed there after her husband passed away and she removed them from the living room. There were Halloween decorations, an old washer and dryer set, and plenty of boxes filled with unknowable goods stored inside. As one of the named individuals in her will, I was asked to look through these photos and note any items that I might like to have. Anything left unclaimed would be divested in an estate sale.
I have written about both of them before, but two of my aunts have died in the recent past. Neither of them left children behind. The first had forsaken the Catholic church later in life and had opted to be cremated. As far as I knew, she did not want to be placed underground, and so her ashes have now spent the past 2+ years occupying a green cardboard box in her sister’s kitchen. She continues to exist amongst the stacks of daily mail. Or a sweating plastic cup of Dunkin’ iced coffee. Shrimp scampi was prepared and cooked about a foot away while her sister waited for a bearable time to do something with the cremains. Life had simply continued.
But then that sister also passed unexpectedly. She suffered a stroke while driving in her Jeep. When my Dad found her, a newly-opened Amazon package sat in the passenger’s seat along with an updated will that had yet to be notarized. She would never get back home, and as such everything went into a state of odd suspense: the blind cat, the furniture, even my cremated aunt has just continued to sit on the kitchen table. While the house shows no immediate change in its outward appearance, the underlying means of locomotion is now stopped. Many months later, I now sat in London peering at everything on a computer screen. Me as one of the people left to seal up these two very significant lives.
I fully recognize that this subject matter is distasteful. When you’re of a younger, school-going age, no one gives you a class on how a person must deal with this eventual duty. Rather, it’s one of those “surprise” evolutions that is unceremoniously delegated and you sort of zombie through until the tasks are fulfilled and some professionally-appointed entity finally stops contacting you. As people send me thumb drives that I’d rather not get, I find myself pinballing through this particular experience.
But I did go through the photos, just as I sent a short list of salvageable items to the estate manager before their appointed deadline. Most of her personal effects would need to be disposed of, with only a few things requiring family interception. My aunt’s ashes in the kitchen, for example, I had seen it clearly in the kitchen photo. A dog’s life vest for boating that still hung in the closet, that stack of handbags on the floor, yes even those horrid deer heads—all of these things would need to go. And each of us have these sorts of haphazardly conglomerated articles in our possession right now. Things that others would either covet or wonder why the hell we’ve got them in the first place. What was most bizarre about this evolution was the fact that we’d need to “request” my first aunt’s cremains because they were still waiting in the kitchen. If we didn’t, they’d be headed for a place far worse than underground. The undoing of a life, or in this case two lives. It’s clinical. And it’s weird.
Given this new proximity to my departed aunts, I can’t help but stop and think about myself. I also don’t have kids. It’s just the Me Show. And I also know that I’ve acquired a lot of crap for a single person. I won’t even try to guess how many pairs of shoes I own. Or Senegalese baskets. Or years of notebooks filled with writing that I can neither bring myself to throw away nor crack open for present day inspection. These articles form much of who I think I am—but at the same time, the notion of putting a magnifying glass on it all sounds exhausting. And still, while I perish the thought of going through my possessions right now, I think of what became of my aunts and hate more the idea of obliging my relations to do this dirty work for me.
Of course nobody knows the exact moment when the hourglass will run empty; and as such, it’s idiotic to start paring down in the name of being a responsible dead person. And I also know that there is little joy in furnishing a space that is devoid of keepsake or character. A hazelwood walking stick from County Clare, a Mi-17 rotor blade, a wall with dozens of carefully hung but broken from use left-handed goalie sticks. These are the peculiarities of human life that make it colorful and worthwhile. And when you are ultimately done with it all, these crazy things will be divided for redistribution or recycling. They become part of another story, perhaps with a past life that is remembered. Or not.
I also think about how my aunts now sit in their own small boxes in different parts of Mashpee town. I wonder if they ever imagined that this would be how life would wrap up for them. In remembering them as old guard Boston stock, my sense is that they wouldn’t care. “Megan, we’re gone—who gives a crap about some old fahts!”. But my own ego wants more for them as we perform this process of releasing them from the earth. I do know that they’d have been annoyed that we were left to sift through their personal effects…but for us as their descendants, it’s a responsibility that we don’t mind undertaking. It helps that we loved them. And it’s also a part of life as demanded in the modern day. A fate that none of us can escape.
As I will soon leave the military, I recently got my own will updated and notarized. Since it’s just me to worry about, the process was fairly straightforward. But while I met with the attorney, I couldn’t get the thought of my aunts out of my mind. Especially when asked how I’d like my remains to be handled. I couldn’t exactly write, “Don’t leave me on the kitchen counter” in the will—but I’d be lying if I said that this addition didn’t sound like a great idea. It’ll be bad enough that the rooms of my belongings will be catalogued by someone who as of right now doesn’t know that this is their future task. But I don’t want someone staring at a Folgers can containing my cremains, endlessly wondering about what should be done with them. So I left instructions for Person X to take what’s left of me and scatter them somewhere that they might find cool. That much I can do.
Separation of self from stuff is a hard process to undertake. I feel this in technicolor detail while scrolling again through this time bomb of a thumb drive. And I peer into my own closets and accept that this is a process that none of us wants to do. It’s why most of us pay for years on end to maintain houses and storage units filled with semi-detached associations from our life. Confronting memory is taxing, and mustering the courage to release each item is in itself an experience of loss.
If I can speak for myself, and in doing so speak for all of us, I’d rather spend my time luxuriating in the experiences of abundance and renewal. That freshly opened Amazon package on the passenger side of a Jeep. Voyaging to a new place to record new experiences. Maintaining a list of tasks that will always be partially accomplished. Life is far more enjoyable to negotiate when we move in this manner.
So I’d like to think that I will spend the coming weekend sorting through the plastic bins currently shoved under my bed. I could ask myself what it is that I really still need. And it wouldn’t take too long—and ultimately, I know I’d feel much lighter in doing so. But at the same time, I am just as human as my aunts. And worse, I’m a coward when it comes to parting with crap that has a 4% chance of being used at some later date. It probably won’t be used of course, but I’ll keep it all the same. I’m human, after all. I might learn a lot from experience, but that’s never a guarantee that I’ll be implementing what I’ve learned.
Someone is bound to want a hazelwood walking stick.